According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the “inevitable condition of texts in history” is one of “iterability” or “recontextualization” (Fischlin and Fortier 5). Thus even the works of Shakespeare, once frequently cited as “timeless,” have been subject to a periodic rise and fall in critical favor over the course of time. Measure for Measure offended the conservative sensibilities of nineteenth century audiences, and King Lear was disregarded for generations as “unactable” by audiences who preferred Nahum Tate’s happily ending adaptation (Dessen 1). However, no other Shakespearean work has experienced the dramatic fall from favor or endured the level of sustained ridicule that has been heaped on the early tragedy Titus Andronicus .
Although Titus was quite successful in Elizabethan times, with Jonathan Bate writing that it “perhaps did more than any other play to establish its author’s reputation as a dramatist” (1), the overwhelming critical consensus in subsequent years dismissed the play as “an accumulation of vulgar physical horrors” (William Hazlitt, qtd. in Kolin 4) and the “singularly faulty… product of a playwright who was never again to write so badly” (Rackin 15). As early as the seventeenth century, its most successful adaptor dubbed the original text “a heap of Rubbish” (Ravenscroft 5), and as late as the twentieth, T.S. Eliot declared it to be “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” (Kerrigan 195). Critics were disgusted by Titus ’s brutal violence, memorably catalogued by S. Clarke Hulse in 1979 as including:
14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism—an average of 5.2
atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines. (qtd. in Kolin 6)
The bloody spectacle was even said to have frightened the young Robert Burns “almost into convulsions” when it was read aloud to him as a child (Alan Dent, qtd. in Kolin 4-5). Theatrical audiences seem to have had a similar reaction, with nervous laughter and/or fainting frequently reported at even the most favorably reviewed productions. Accordingly, revivals have been few and far between, until quite recently (Tempera 16).
After a hiatus of a few hundred years, during which the only notable stagings of Titus Andronicus were adaptations, Shakespeare’s playtext began to be staged again in the twentieth century. Although the first few of these performances appear to have been lackluster efforts by reluctant companies to “complete the set” of Shakespeare’s plays or offer insight into his early creative development, recent directors have chosen to approach Titus as valuable and relevant in itself, independent of Shakespeare’s authorship, and they have seen remarkable success as a result (Kennedy 64, Bate 1). This turnabout has been so pronounced that in the summer of 2006, The Guardian’s theatre reviewer, Michael Billington, wrote that “One of the pleasures of my theatre-going life has been to watch [Titus’s] restoration to public favour. Instead of a primitive, Marlovian gore fest, it is now seen as a study in monumental suffering” (Billington, Titus Andronicus Shakespeare’s Globe).
Why should a play as consistently reviled as Titus Andronicus , rejected by centuries of critics as apocryphal, and almost entirely absent from the stage for centuries be experiencing a return to the theatrical repertory and a concomitant surge in critical attention? Whereas previous generations were repulsed by Titus ’s brutality, either shunning the play entirely or “correcting” it by tempering its violent excesses and eliminating moral ambiguity, it is exactly this excess and ambiguity which seems to attract more recent directors and critics. This paper will outline Titus ’s iteration from initial success to later rejection and finally, to recent deconstructive readings that play on the very aspects which caused the play’s rejection in the first place. In the process, this account of Titus ’s critical reception will serve as a case study illustrating changes in the notion of Shakespeare’s authority over time, from master playwright to national poet to astute critic and chronicler of human nature.
Initial Success: Titus in the Time of Shakespeare
“[H]e that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at here as a man whose judgment shows it is constant, and hath stood still these five and twenty, or thirty years” – Induction to Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (1614)
Although the above quotation has often been cited by past scholars as evidence for contemporaries’ scorn of Titus Andronicus , it is now more frequently interpreted as testimony to the play’s enduring popularity. Juxtaposing Shakespeare’s play with Kyd’s popular work,The Spanish Tragedy , Jonson scorns not the play itself, but devotees whose tastes in 1614 still favored the revenge tragedies of the 1590s, which were by then “very old-fashioned” (Eugene Waith, qtd. in Dessen 5). It follows, therefore, that Titus Andronicus was not always considered the black sheep amongst Shakespeare’s plays; rather, it was so successful in its own time that twenty years after its initial publication, it had become quite overplayed.
As is typical of Elizabethan plays, little evidence remains to detail the performance history of Titus Andronicus . However, the bits and pieces that are available reveal more than is known about most of Shakespeare’s works (Dessen 6), a fact which may serve as further evidence that the play was unusually successful in its own time. In addition to written records of several performances in the 1590s and early 1600s (Bate 69-70), a contemporaneous illustration of the play also exists. This illustration, known as the Peacham Drawing, constitutes the only visual representation of Shakespeare remaining from his own time (Bate 38-39). Additionally, records of several spinoffs have survived to the present day, including a ballad (Bate 70), a chapbook (Bate 3), and two adaptations of the play performed in seventeenth century Germany and Holland (Bate 44, 48).
The first recorded performance of Titus Andronicus was at Philip Henslowe’s Rose Theatre on January 24, 1594. According to Henslowe’s records, the play earned some of the highest receipts of any play that season, taking three pounds and eight shillings on opening night and earning between eighteen and forty shillings at each subsequent performance (Bate 69-70). Even when the Rose closed shortly after the play’s premiere due to a resurgence of the plague in early February, further evidence of Titus ’s immediate popularity can be found in the Stationers’ Register, where John Danter recorded an entry for “A Noble History of Titus Andronicus” on February 6, just three days after the order was made for the theatres to be closed (Bate 70). This quarto edition marked the first time any of Shakespeare’s plays was committed to print (Murphy 22), and it was followed by two subsequent editions in 1600 and 1611, showing that the interest of contemporary readers continued even after Shakespeare had produced what modern critics have tended to regard as more “mature” works (Bate 71).
In addition to its auspicious opening season and three successful print runs,Titus seems to have remained a “company showpiece” in 1596, when it was performed by the Chamberlain’s Men at the home of Sir John Harrington at Burley-on-the-Hill, Rutland as part of that year’s Christmas festivities (Keenan 82). Although few additional records of specific performances in England exist, the title pages to each quarto edition serve as witness to the ever-growing popularity of the play. While the first, released shortly after Titus ’s premiere, states that “it was Plaide by the Right Honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex their Seruants” (Shakespeare,Titus 1st ed.), the second quarto claims that it “hath sundry times been played” by the same companies, adding “the Lorde Chamberlaine theyr Seruants” to the list (Hughes 13-14, italics added). The third edition also claimsTitus’s popularity, stating again that “IT HATHSUNDRYtimes beene plaide by the Kings Maiesties Seruants” (Shakespeare,Titus3rded., italics added).
The play is also mentioned in Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia or Wit’s Commonwealth (1598), a commonplace book written in the vernacular and providing a rare account of English artistic activity at the time (Allen v-vi). In a passage that illuminates most of what is known of the early chronology of Shakespeare’s works (Allen vi), Meres lists Titus among six comedies and six tragedies he believed established Shakespeare as the premiere playwright in the English language (Hughes 13), writing that:
As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines: so Shakespeare among y English is the most excellent in both kinds for the Stage; for Comedy, witnes hisGetleme of Verona, hisErrors, hisLoue labors losthisLoue labours wonne, hisMidsummers night dreame, & hisMerchant of Venice; for Tragedy hisRichard the 2.Richard the 3.Henry the 4.King John,Titus Andronicusand hisRomeo and Juliet (281).
Years before the advent of Hamlet , King Lear , Othello , or Macbeth , regarded by modern times as Shakespeare’s “great” tragedies, Meres lauded Shakespeare as the pinnacle of English drama, at least in part due to his authorship of Titus, here listed as one of several masterpieces, rather than an anomalous black mark on an otherwise illustrious record.
Shortly after Shakespeare’s death,Titus even found receptive audiences on the Continent, where in 1620 it became the first of Shakespeare’s plays to be published in Germany. The German prose translation, titled Eine sehr klägliche Tragaedia von Tito Andronico und der hoffertigen Kaiserin, darinnen denckwürdige actions zubefinden or A most lamentable tragedy of Titus Andronicus and the haughty empress, wherein are found memorable events was printed in a volume of “plays acted by the English in Germany.” The first of Shakespeare’s plays to be printed in German, its language seems to have been greatly simplified, with a heavy reliance on action over dialogue, and the cast, originally consisting of twenty-five members and an unspecified number of “OTHER GOTHS” was reduced to only twelve parts (Bate 44-45). Later in 1641, another adaptation,Aran en Titus, was staged in Amsterdam. Printed later that year, it was popular enough to go through a series of twenty-eight editions by 1726 (Bate 48).
Critics differ in their explanations of exactly what it was that made so singularly reviled a play as Titus Andronicus successful in its own time. Some postulate, with Harold Bloom, that the play was popular because “The Elizabethan audience was at least as bloodthirsty as the groundlings who throng our cinemas and gawk at our television sets” (78) and found in Titus the same sadistic enjoyment they might have experienced from a bear-baiting or a public execution. However, other interpreters avoid dismissing Titus ’s popularity with its contemporaries as the result of sheer bloodthirstiness. For instance, Mariangela Tempera points to the play’s many classical references, writing that “in Shakespeare’s England even the audience of the popular stage would have had a familiarity with Greek myths and Roman history which we cannot hope to find in our university students, much less average theatergoers” (59). Therefore, Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have recognized in many ofTitus’s more violent episodes familiar stories adapted from Ovid and Livy. Similarly, Alan C. Dessen suggests that “the very features that have proved problematic for subsequent editors, directors, actors, and readers (e.g., the mythological allusions, the long, rhetorical passages, the on-stage violence) may have appealed to playgoers still under the spell of and Tamburlaine ” (6). This interpretation acknowledges the role of violence in Titus ’s popularity, but only in tandem with the rhetorical style and classical references highly valued in the early modern era. Whatever the cause, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus achieved a level of popularity and success in its own time that would baffle future critics for the next three centuries, during which the text virtually disappeared from the stage.
Adaptations: Restoration and Victorian Interpretations
“[’T]is the most incorrect and indigested piece in all his Works. It seems rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure—However as if some great Building had been design’d, in the removal we found many Large and Square Stones both useful and Ornamental to the Fabrick, as now Modell’d…” – Preface to Edward Ravenscroft’s Titus Andronicus; or, the Rape of Lavinia (1687)
In his 1708 history of the English stage, Roscius Anglicanus, John Downes cites Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus among a list of twenty-one plays that were only “acted but now and then,” but “being well performed, were very satisfactory to the town” (qtd. in Dessen 7). However, by the time of Downes’s writing, Shakespeare’s playtext had already been largely replaced by an adaptation, Edward Ravenscroft’s 1678 Titus Andronicus; or, the Rape of Lavinia (Bate 49, Dessen 7). Furthermore, by the middle of the eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s authorship of the original Titus seems to have become widely disputed, with Samuel Johnson writing that the play attributed to Shakespeare was likely “spurious,” considering that “the colour of the style is wholly different from that of the other plays” (802). Perhaps as a result, authors saw fit to make “improvements” on it. Although at least two major adaptations were produced between the Restoration and the twentieth century, once superseded by Ravenscroft’s play, Shakespeare’s original playtext was not produced by a professional company again until 1923 (Dessen 7).
Interestingly enough, it was Ravenscroft, Titus’s Restoration adaptor, who seems to have first questioned Shakespeare’s hand in the play. In the first recorded denial of Shakespeare’s authorship, Ravenscroft writes in the Preface to the 1687 printed edition of The Rape of Lavinia that “I have been told by some anciently conversant with the Stage, that it was not Originally [Shakespeare’s], but brought by some private Author to be Acted, and he only gave some Master-touches to one or two of the Principal Parts or Characters” (5). Although, as J.C. Maxwell points out, “There is no evidence that Ravenscroft had any good authority” (xxv), his questioning of Shakespeare’s authorship appears to have stuck, possibly because many critics seemed to agree with him that the original Titus Andronicus was “rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure” (Ravenscroft 5) and thus beneath the genius of an author like Shakespeare.
Strangely, whereas Meres had written of Titus as evidence of Shakespeare’s genius, less than a century later, that same reputation for genius served as justification for Ravenscroft to disavow any hand such a poet as Shakespeare might have had in writing the original play. Already in the Restoration, it seems, Shakespeare’s legendary reputation had developed a life of its own. Rather than measuring and defining Shakespeare by his works, as Meres had done, Ravenscroft and later critics measured and defined Shakespeare’s works by how well they matched popular conceptions of “Shakespeare.” Therefore, the trend for the next two-hundred years would be to rewriteTitus, altering and excising the “Rubbish” from the original text while attempting to maintain the “Master-touches” perceived to be Shakespeare’s contribution to the play, referred to by Ravenscroft as “Large and Square Stones both useful and Ornamental to the Fabrick” of his adaptation (5).
In this spirit of “fixing” Titus, Ravenscroft removed much of the play’s original moral ambiguity, strengthening the boundary between the “good” Andronici and the “evil” Goths from the outset. For example, rather than presenting Titus as flatly unsympathetic to Tamora’s pleas for mercy as the Andronici prepare to slay her firstborn son Alarbus, Ravenscroft adds explanatory dialogue detailing the story of Titus’s own son who was “By Priestly Butchers Murder’d on [the Goths’] Altars” (Ravenscroft I.i.76). Thus, instead of hypocritically avenging the deaths of Titus’s sons killed honorably in battle, in spite of Tamora’s insistence that her sons have died this way too (Shakespeare, Titus I.i.15-18), Alarbus’s sacrifice is meant to appease the “groaning Shadow” of a son slaughtered in a “heathen” ritual (Ravenscroft I.i.75). Later, in an additional act of asserting boundaries between Romans and Goths, Ravenscroft also has his Lucius raise an army to oppose Tamora and the Emperor, not from the Andronici’s old enemies the Goths as Shakespeare does (III.i.286), but from Titus’s “old legions” still loyal to him (Dessen 8).
Although some modern critics of Ravenscroft’s adaptation have felt that these changes rectify inconsistencies in the original Titus, others suggest that they have the effect of “oversimplifying” the moral issues at work in the play (Murray 471). This criticism may illuminate a notable contrast between Ravenscroft’s seventeenth century approach to Titus and that of a modern reader. Where Ravenscroft sought to assert neat moral boundaries, modern critics seek to deconstruct them. Still other critics, such as Jonathan Bate, interest themselves not with what Ravenscroft “corrected” from the original play, but instead with what he enhanced.
Most notably, Ravenscroft expanded the role of Aaron (spelled “Aron” by Ravenscroft), which had already been foregrounded in the Dutch Aran en Titus forty years earlier (Bate 49). Although this expansion is visible throughout the play, with Aron instead of Tamora’s surviving sons insisting that she seek revenge on the Andronici for the slaughter of Alarbus (I.ii.91-99), it is most evident in the play’s final scene. Whereas Aaron is absent from the banquet at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Titus, Ravenscroft’s Aron is present throughout, being stretched on a rack. Finally, at the end of the play, he is burned alive (Ravenscroft V.iii.274), a change which seems significant mostly because of the violence it adds to what later generations would consider a gratuitously brutal play. From this addition, it seems evident that Ravenscroft rejected Shakespeare’s Titus not on grounds of its violence, as later critics would, but because of its moral difficulties. Like their Renaissance predecessors, audiences of Restoration England seem to have had a healthy appreciation for violence, and may have even enjoyed seeing evildoers brutally punished, as the perpetrators of the country’s recent insurrection had been punished upon the ascension of Charles II.
After the last recorded production of Ravenscroft’s play in 1724 (Murray 471),Titus seems to have disappeared from the stage for one hundred and twenty years, only to reemerge in the form of another adaptation. Like Ravenscroft’s play, Ira Aldridge’s 1857 Titus greatly enhanced the role of Aaron the Moor. Unlike Ravenscroft’s play, it portrayed him as a hero, eliminating much of the original script’s violence in the process. Although the text of Aldridge’s Titus is no longer extant, the most detailed surviving review states that “the deflowerment of Lavinia, cutting out her tongue, chopping off her hands, and the numerous decapitations and gross language… are totally omitted and a play not only presentable but actually attractive is the result” (“Review of Titus” 378). This version ofTitusseems to have served as a star vehicle for Aldridge, allowing him to play a transformed Aaron, “elevated into a noble and lofty character” (“Review of Titus” 378). Given the prevalence of censorship at the time,# it may also have been the only form in which Titus could be acceptably presented in Victorian times. However, as Jonathan Bate points out, “The price of getting an Aaron on to the Victorian stage was the removal of the rape and mutilation of Lavinia” (57), resulting in a Titus that, according the reviewer for The Brighton Herald, “[had] nothing in common with Shakespeare’s” (qtd. in Dessen 12). Disapproving of this departure from Shakespeare’s text, the reviewer quipped that “Mr. Aldridge has not attempted to grapple with the difficulties presented to the modern adapter; he has not wasted time in puzzling over the Gordian knot. He has cut it” (qtd. in Dessen 12).
Although the Long Eighteenth Century and Victorian Era each produced successful adaptations of Titus Andronicus which were revived multiple times, the period does not seem to have witnessed a great deal of interest in exploring the moral complexities of Shakespeare’s original work. Instead, the general trend seemed to be towards “correcting” them. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, some critics, such as the abovementioned reviewer for The Brighton Herald, seem to have shown an interest in “grappling” with Shakespeare’s original playtext.
Completing the Set: Early Twentieth Century Titus
“Of course, Miss Lillian Baylis is to be congratulated on one thing in this revival, which is that it brings her ‘Old Vic’ Shakespearean list up to thirty-five plays—thereby beating Phelps Sadler’s Wells record by one!” – “Titus at the Old Vic” in The Referee (1923)
After Ira Aldridge’s adaptation in the 1850s,Titus seems to have spent nearly seventy years once more entirely absent from the stage, and when it did return in 1923, it was not because of any particular faith in its artistic merits. Rather, when Titus debuted that year at the Old Vic, it was in a determined effort to be the first theatre to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays—even those widely acknowledged as awful. This seems to have had two effects: first, in the name of presenting a complete canon, it caused the return of Shakespeare’s playtext to the stage. Because this return was merely obligatory,Titus’s reluctant productions were met with lackluster reviews, perpetuating the play’s dismal reputation.
In 1923, the Old Vic was owned and operated by Lillian Baylis, whose aunt, Emma Cons, had purchased the theatre as a philanthropic effort in 1880 in order to provide the public with “a cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines (“A Brief History”). Avoiding the “impure associations” of the name “theatre,” Cons had renamed the place the Royal Victoria Coffee and Music Hall (“A Brief History”) and advertised it as “purified entertainment” with “no intoxicating drinks… sold” (Kennedy 64). After Cons’s death in 1912, Baylis took over the theatre (“A Brief History”), and three years later, she began her campaign to present all the works in Shakespeare’s canon (Kennedy 64).
According to Andrew Kennedy, it was around this time, coincident with World War I, that directors began to feel “a moral obligation to present the great plays of the past—whether they liked it or not” (64). It was also during this time that Shakespeare experienced his “final elevation” into the status of quintessential English author (Kennedy 64), asserting national pride at a time of international conflict. It was in this spirit of obligation and self-conscious Englishness that the upright Royal Victoria, by now known as the Old Vic, presented the bloody Titus Andronicus, along with the similarly infrequently produced Troilus and Cressida and Love’s Labor’s Lost (Kennedy 64). Tacking the three “worst” plays onto the end of their decade producing Shakespeare’s canon, the Old Vic reluctantly produced Titus “for the same reason that one might continue to buy unneeded china: to complete the set” (Kennedy 64).
Although the advent of Shakespeare as national author made his canon an indispensible component of national identity and the production of his complete works an expression of the utmost English patriotism, it was with some discomfort that Britons included the brutally violent Titus among the literature that defined them. Accordingly, the first revival of Shakespeare’s Titus in nearly three hundred years was apologetically produced and unenthusiastically reviewed. Although the director, Robert Atkins, employed a “nearly complete text” (Gordon Crosse, qtd. in Dessen 13), and was praised by Shakespearean Scenereviewer Herbert Farjeon for “launch[ing] into the horrors and lung[ing] through them far more courageously than nine modern producers out of ten would launch and lunge” (qtd. in Dessen 13), this seems to have been done in a spirit of obligation to canonical completeness rather than any true relish for the play. Even Farjeon criticized Atkins for his attempts to tastefully present brutal violence, remarking that Lavinia “delicately turns her back” as she carries her father’s amputated hand between her teeth and that Tamora “pecks… daintily” at the cannibalistic feast Titus serves at the end of the play (13). These concessions to propriety seem to have struck Farjeon as misrepresentative of Shakespeare’s play, as he wrote that “since emphatically, I abominate it, when I see it on stage, I claim the right to be allowed to abominate it” (Farjeon, qtd. in Hughes 30).
However, it may have been this tasteful presentation that allowed the audience politely to suspend its disbelief until the final scene, when Gordon Crosse writes “some of us fairly broke down and laughed when the deaths of Tamora, Titus, and Saturninus followed each other within about five seconds, as in a burlesque melodrama” (qtd. in Dessen 13). Tempered with as much delicacy as the use of a near complete script would allow, the Old Vic’s 1923 Titus was a not a play to be enjoyed, but rather endured in the name of completeness. This much is apparent from the commentary of the reviewer for The Referee, who says very little of Atkins or the actors in his review, instead detailing Titus’s plot—with which he seems thoroughly amused—and expressing disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship. The single paragraph he devotes to the Old Vic’s production at the end of the review mostly praises Lillian Baylis for staging the play in the first place, adding to her “Shakespearean list” and “thereby beating [the previous] record by one!” (Carados 383).
This attitude towards the play would continue to be prevalent until the middle of the century. Perhaps because of the uninspiringly mixed reviews of Atkins’s Titus, the play was performed only rarely and even then generally by university literary societies instead of professional companies. However, when it was seen, it was praised not on its own merits but on principle as a novel and admirable undertaking in service of Shakespeare’s canon. Thus A.M. Witherspoon, reviewing a 1924 production by a Yale fraternity, Alpha Delta Pi, congratulates the cast on their unique accomplishment, writing that “The Monday evening production was the first performance of the play ever seen by an American audience, and that of last evening probably the last” (385). Similarly, thePunchcritic of the Cambridge Marlowe Society’s 1953 Titus wrote that “Seeing the play again would be like going twice to the Paris morgue, but I am very glad to have put it into my collector’s bag” (Punch 390). It was not until 1955 that a professional company would produce Titus Andronicus on the grounds of its own merit rather than its status as a rarely-approached First Folio text.
A “Second Birthday”: Peter Brook and Titus
“[Titus Andronicus] begins to yield its secrets the moment one ceases to regard it as a string of gratuitous strokes of melodrama and begins to look for its completeness… [I]f one searches in this way one can find the expression of a powerful and eventually beautiful barbaric ritual.” – Peter Brook’s The Empty Space (1968)
At the beginning of her performance history of Titus Andronicus, Mariangela Tempera cites Peter Brook’s 1955 Titus as ‘the inevitable starting point for any analysis of the play’s stage history in the 20th Century” (16). This is because Brook’s production of Shakespeare’s play seems to be the first since the 1600s to be regarded not as a curiosity or an obligatory tribute to the canon, but as a genuine work of art on its own merits. So pronounced was this change in the play’s fortunes that Alan Dessen refers to Brook’s opening night as “the second birthday for this script” (15). However, this rebirth of Shakespeare’s script came at the price of a massive 650 cut lines (Dessen 21) and a formalized representation of violent acts that many later critics would interpret as aestheticizing rape and torture and distancing their victims from audience sympathies (Aebischer 39). Still, Brook’s production seems to have paved the way for future revivals of Titus, many of which would address these concernsby confronting the text more directly and presenting the events of the play with brutal realism.
By the time that Brook chose to direct Titus, it was the only Shakespeare play that had never been performed by the Shakespeare Memorial Company, known today as the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although it had been announced for their jubilee season in 1929, probably in the same spirit of grudging canonical inclusion with which the Old Vic produced the play, it had quickly been replaced by Much Ado About Nothing, a solidly established and uncontroversial comedy thought to be a bigger box office draw (Dessen 14). Therefore, turning down an offer to direct Macbeth in favor of staging the obscure and violent Titus Andronicus was a bold move on Brook’s part (Dessen 14). Accordingly, it was met with a fair amount of incredulous amusement, with the Yorkshire Post’s announcement bearing the headline “Red Meat at Stratford” and remarking that “Should the River Avon be red on Wednesday morning it may well be that the dye has seeped through the foundations of Stratford’s Memorial Theatre” (Pratt 391). On opening night, amusement turned to wonder. As J.C. Trewin later wrote, “curtain-fall that August evening brought the longest, loudest cheer in Stratford memory” (qtd. in Dessen 15).
Although some critics, such as Alan Dessen, suggest that the success of this Titus had much to do with the time of its release, “only ten years removed from the horrors of the Second World War” (15), Brook’s vision was clearly instrumental in making the play palatable to a modern audience. Whereas previous twentieth century directors had approached Titus reluctantly, hoping merely to render a very unfortunate inclusion in Shakespeare’s canon somewhat tolerable, Brook aimed higher. Although admitting in his program note that Titus was “horrifying indeed,” he also wrote that it had “a real primitive strength, achieving at times a barbaric dignity” (qtd. in Dessen 15).Therefore, embracing rather than eliding the play’s cruelty, Brook sought to help his audience look beyond the common view of Titus as “a string of gratuitous strokes of melodrama and begin… to look for its completeness,” thereby “tapp[ing] into a ritual of bloodshed which was recognized as true” (Brook, qtd. in Dessen 15). Tempering the shock of Titus’s violence through a highly formalized, ritualistic presentation, Brook allowed his audience to look beyond the gore to recognize the tragedy’s powerful commentary on human cruelty, now recognized as a legitimate part of human experience and therefore, British identity.
Conscious of Titus’s dubious reputation, Brook spent almost a year cutting the script to suit modern tastes, removing distasteful puns, obscure classical references, and anything likely to generate unwanted laughter like that of the audience at the Old Vic’s Titus thirty years earlier (MacDonald 187). Substituting scarlet streamers for stage blood and censoring some violent acts by moving them offstage or hiding them from the audience’s view (Dessen 21-22), Brook emphasized the “ritualistic and emblematic qualities of the play” and assured that its poetry would not be lost amid audience laughter or stunned revulsion (Bate 65). In an extra effort to set the tone and guide audience interpretation of the severely cut script, he even carefully composed and recorded his own musical score (Tempera 16), assuring him as much control over the mood of the play as possible. In response to Brook’s seemingly absolute creative control over all aspects of production, Bernard Levin quipped, “I can authoritatively deny that he is also the man who tears the tickets in half” (qtd. in Kennedy 65).
As reward for Brook’s efforts, the play was regarded as a triumph. Although Daniel Scuro’s article on the production bears the sensationalistic title “A Crimson Flushed Stage!” it also insists that “Mr. Brook squeezed every drop of inhumanity out of the drama while dropping very little gore on the stage of the Memorial Theatre” (405). Another reviewer, Jan Kott, counted it “among five greatest theatrical experiences of my life” (398) and credited Brook with “discover[ing] Shakespeare inTitus” (394). According to the critic for Punch, “The conviction and fervor of the playing and directing… ma[de] it possible to dispense with actual visible gore,” and the stylized presentation of violence, along with judicious cuts to the script “balk[ed] laughter and respect[ed] queasy stomachs while losing nothing that cannot be spared (qtd. in Scuro 406).
However, a few critics disagreed. As Herbert Farjeon had criticized the Old Vic’s Titus for misrepresenting the tragedy, Richard David wrote that the original play was “twaddle,” but “in striving to make it more than this Brook made it less than nothing.” David was “spell-bound and yet quite unmoved” at the play’s many atrocities “turned to favours and to prettiness” (qtd. in Dessen 23). Similarly, Evelyn Waugh contended that Brook had overstylized the play, snidely remarking that the corpses in the final scene were “very elegant, especially the ladies.” In summary, he suggested, “the only complaint that could be made against Mr. Brook was of squeamishness” (qtd. in Dessen 23).
The scenes surrounding Lavinia’s rape and dismemberment seem to have been particularly subject to criticism, even from reviewers who rendered an overall favorable verdict. For example, Kenneth Tynan, who praised Laurence Olivier’s Titus as “a performance which ushers us into the presence of one who is, pound for pound, the greatest actor alive” (qtd. in Dessen 18), also remarked that Vivien Leigh’s Lavinia “receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have preferred foam rubber” (MacDonald 188). Even reviewers like Wilfred Clarke, who admired Leigh’s “fine, expressive acting” found it difficult to believe her mutilations, because “though her mouth was half open, pityingly expressive and voiceless, the chin was clean, impossibly clean” (qtd. in Dessen 21). Perhaps most disturbingly, Janet Suzman, who would herself play Lavinia in the 1972 RSC production ofTitus Andronicuswith Trevor Nunn, recalls that when Leigh’s Lavinia reentered the stage after the assault, “her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished” (Shakespeare II.iii), “the whole audience gasped,” not in horror or sympathy, but “because she was so beautiful!” (qtd. in Aebischer 39).
While Brook’s Titus opened doors for future productions, firmly establishing the play as a legitimate part of the Shakespearean theatrical repertory (Tempera 15-16) and helping to “define… the options open to subsequent directors” (Dessen 23), its formalized style did meet with some criticism, which would only grow more pronounced in future years. Feminist critics especially would condemn the aestheticization of Lavinia’s mutilation, choosing instead to favor more realistic portrayals of the play’s violence (MacDonald 197-199). After Brook’s aestheticized approach brought Titus the critical acclaim and scholarly attention that it had lacked for most of its history, the tide would turn towards confronting the violence of the play directly through brutally violent, frequently uncut portrayals of the entire text. Therefore, in many ways, the later productions that Brook’sTitusmade possible would define themselves against their landmark predecessor, seeking not to find harmony or aesthetic value in Titus, but to emphasize the ugliest and most cruel aspects of the text.